Review: Free to Enslave: Politics and the Escalation of the British Slave Trade 1688-1714, by William Pettigrew


In “Free to Enslave: Politics and the Escalation of the British Slave Trade 1688-1714,” William Pettigrew argues that historians too often explain England’s participation in the slave trade through “atomized economic calculations of colonists and their suppliers,” rather than broader political participation of the English populace and the state’s role in expanding the slave trade inn the late seventeenth century. Rise of the slave trade is most often viewed through a narrow economic analysis, but Pettigrew reviews this rise through a broad “political context,” there by showing “how modern political culture and institutions were involved in the escalation” of the slave trade.   “From 1690 to 1714, members of Parliament debated the slave trade in sixteen parliamentary sessions, absorbing about the same amount of legislative time as discussions of its abolition.”[1] From the 1690s to the bankruptcy of the Royal African Company, the main question among Britons was: would a corporate monopoly, run by the Royal African Company, or open trade best serve the national interest and meet rising demand for slave labor in the Americas?[2] Political history of England’s participation and escalation of the slave trade were “important determinants to modernity.”[3]

The political history of the British abolition movement, according to historian William Pettigrew, receives more attention than England’s expansion of the slave trade in the late seventeenth century. Historians, too often, explain England’s participation in the slave trade as the accumulated results of “atomized economic calculations of colonists and their suppliers,” rather than the result of politics. Pettigrew argues that scholars should consider the political history of the escalation of the slave trade, which he argues held important implications for the rise of modernity and liberalism.

This is a brief overview of Pettigrew’s article. My intention is to focus on several points relevant to an upcoming work about the demise of the Royal African Company and the development of an experimental company—the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa.   I focus on tension felt between open public discourse and contempt for monopolies, which Pettigrew writes about in his article, because these issues are important for understanding the history of liberalism in the long duree, and for understanding Britain’s transition from corporatism to free trade imperialism, which I cover in my following essay.[4] The contradictions between liberty and the origins of liberalism can be found in works such as Seth Rockman’s “The Unfree Origins of American Capitalism”; Susan Buck-Morss’s “Hegel and Haiti”; Liberalism: A Counter History (2011); and many other works. Liberalism, as an economic and political philosophy, extolls freedom, but through a deep reading of the history of liberalism from the late seventeenth century to the present, we find copious contradictions. Slavery played a central role in the very origins of liberalism.

Pettigrew transformed his article into a book Freedom’s Debt: the Royal African Company and the politics of the Atlantic slave trade, 1672-1752 (2013), where he goes into greater detail about the demise of the Royal African Company. Both the essay and the book are revisionary histories about the decline of the company, but together they reveal much more. In 1698, William and Mary refused to renew the Royal African Company’s monopoly charter on the African trade; thereby setting an unprecedented free trade policy with African that exponentially increased the sale and transport of slaves to America. His essay covers the beginning stages of the free trade movement from 1698 to 1714. William and Mary opened trade, experimentally, for several years, but free trade proved too successful to abandon. By 1750, free traders successfully defeated the Royal African Company, but their success cannot be attributed to economics alone. The success of free trade “elucidates the part played in the slave trade’s development by the emergence of the modern British state and a more open political culture.”[7] Private merchants claimed that it was their natural right as free Englishmen to trade freely with Africa. According to Pettigrew, this not only “complicates liberalism’s association with liberty,” but also reveals how “liberal institutions proved instrumental in escalating the worst brutalities of British imperialism.”[8]

The political influence of private merchants resulted, in part, to the Glorious Revolution, when King James II abdicated and William and Mary took the English thrown. At this point Parliament took control over the nation’s finances. During the 1690s, the political framework of England changed as parliament gained more power. Petitions to parliament expanded and allowed merchants more access and power within parliament. Prior to the Revolution, the Crown depended, largely on corporations to expand and maintain the Empire, in return for financial and military support for national interest. King James II granted the Royal African Company its monopoly in 1672, but in he 1690s, parliament claimed that this monopoly was not legal because it was awarded to the company without consent by parliament, when the company’s charter came up for renewal in 1698, William and Mary refused to renew it. The public associated monopolies, especially the RAC with the absolutist pretensions of the previous Stuart monarch–Charles II and James II, this helped them gain support. They refused, in part because of growing petitions, politics, and legal maneuvering by merchants interested in open trade with Africa.[9]

Both the company and merchants used petitions to effect political legislation, but they   solicited different groups. For instance, the Royal African Company targeted people with high social standing, while private merchants sought quantity over ‘quality’ of persons, thereby democratizing the process. “The Separate traders also placed more value on the number of signatures rather than their quality as the company did.”[10]

Both the Company and merchants used print to convey their arguments and solicit public support. According to Pettigrew, the Company used writers who were better known than those private merchants used. For instance, both Charles Davenant and Daniel Defoe wrote on behalf of the company. On the other hand, private merchants “couch[ed] their opposition [to the company] in constitutional terms.” Because monopolies were associated with absolutism, they “reinterpreted certain aspects of the company’s charter… as emblematic of Jacobite tyranny.”[11] Free trade with Africa for slaves became a sign of English liberty. Pettigrew writes: “by celebrating the societal benefits of individual economic self-interests, opponents of the company’s monopoly yoked economic self-interest, opponents of the company’s monopoly yoked the cause of political liberalism to economic growth.”[12]

This newfound ideal of economic liberalism, self-interest, liberty, and the slave trade, quickly expanded overseas “A changing balance of power in Britain’s Atlantic empire saw a devolution of political initiative to those at the colonial periphery at the same time that those colonial interest began to develop a political presence in the metropolis.”[13]

Pettigrew walks through the steps that ended the free trade experiment in 1712, but free traders continued trading. The RAC gained the Asiento trade from Spain, where the Company traded slave to Spain in the Americas, but with the introduction of the South Sea Company and its disastrous consequences, private merchants gained political momentum and used it to continue their political and economic advantages. Private merchants successfully “blocked company attempts to secure statutory confirmation for their charter by publically embarrassing the company with references to their own superior economic record and by cultivating the support of a far more impressive petitioning interest than the company could achieve.”[14]

The public attention and support of free trade and English liberty, brought attention to the fact that “enslaved African labor was integral to the expansion of Britain’s plantation economies.” This helped to “commodify African slaves.” He argues that constitutional debates of the slave trade worked in tandem with liberalism and a more open and free public political sphere. These contradictions–between liberty and slavery–are not peculiar to the origins of the English slave trade, but continued throughout the nineteenth century and examples can be found in the writings of historians on slavery’s capitalism. Pettigrew argues, “during the eighteenth century, freedom acquired economic and humanitarian meaning in addition to its seventeenth century political definition. All became determinants of modernity. Yet their asynchronous evolution did much… to complicate freedom’s association with political liberty.”[15]

–Todd Burst


[1]. Pettigrew, William A. “Free to Enslave: Politics and the Escalation of Britain’s Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1688-1714.” willmaryquar The William and Mary Quarterly 64, no. 1 (2007): 3-38, 3.

[2]. Ibid.

[3] Ibid. 37

[4] Although Pettigrew does not specifically address the extent to which England/ Britain outsourced Empire to corporations, he provides a good starting point for understanding new “economic histories” in light of the revisions in the history of the English state that have occurred over the past few decades.

[5]. Pettigrew, William A. “Free to Enslave: Politics and the Escalation of Britain’s Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1688-1714.” willmaryquar The William and Mary Quarterly 64, no. 1 (2007): 3-38, 3.

[6]. Ibid.

[7]. Ibid. 8

[8]. Ibid.

[9]. From pgs. 10-12, Pettigrew goes into the relationships between the Crown and monopolies. He also mentions a legal case, which opened the door to later petitions on part of private merchants–Nightingale v. Bridges. See pg. 11. Also, Pettigrew does not use the term outsource.

[10]. Ibid. 13

[11]. Ibid. 15.

[12]. Ibid. 16.

[13]. Ibid. 20.

[14]. Ibid. 31.

[15]. Ibid. 38.

Review:Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination, by Gurminder K. Bhambra


Rethinking modernity: postcolonialism and the sociological imagination. By Gurminder K. Bhambra. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2007. Pp. vii – 200. $130.00 (Cloth).

In Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination (2007), sociologist, Gurminder K. Bhambra seeks to decenter Europe’s hegemony on sociology. Writing in the wake of postcolonialism, Bhambra admits that her goal no longer seems novel, but her criticisms of postcolonial theorists — for merely reifying the binary play between the “West and the rest” — reveals that Bhambra’s work is still vitally important for social theory.[*] The author claims to have found a way out of the binary interplay between the West the ‘other,’ by revising the history of modernity and the historiography of sociology through historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s theory of ‘connected histories.’ Using C. Wright Mills’ “sociological imagination,” Bhambra shows that revising the socio-historical narrative of modernity is imperative for understanding social theory in today’s globalized world.

In the introduction, titled “Postcolonialism, Sociology, and the Politics of Knowledge Production,” Bhambra states the problem of the book as such: theories of modernity lie at the heart of classical and contemporary sociology and social theory.   Europe lies at the heart of all theories of modernity. These theories, from Comte to postcolonialism, Bhambra asserts, rely on two fundamental assumptions – rupture and difference. Sociology, she continues, is predicated on historical narratives, these narratives have privileged Europe. Bhambra states the reasons for undertaking this project: “the way we understand the past has implications for the social theories we develop to deal with the situations we live with today. Through recognizing the constituted ‘other’ as always present in history, but written out of it, we can begin to conceptualize forms of theoretical discourse and political practice today” (Bhambra, 2009, p. 11).

Bhambra defines what she means by both modernity and Eurocentracism. First, by modernity, Bhambra refers to “the social, cultural, political, and economic changes that took place in Western Europe from the mid-sixteenth century onwards” (Bhambra, 2009, p. 2). Bhambra does not use Eurocentracism in a typical sense, but her “alternative” meaning is important for understanding how she plans on overcoming Eurocentracism through ‘connected histories.’ By Eurocentracism, Bhambra means “the belief, implicit, or otherwise, in the world historical significance of events believed to have developed endogenously within the cultural-geographical sphere of Europe” (Bhambra, 2009, p. 5). Bhambra does not argue that things like the French Revolution or the Industrial Revolution did not exist or that modernity does not exist, instead, she argues that modernity is not the sole property of Europe.

The book consists of two parts, with three chapters, totaling six chapters all together. Part I, titled “Sociology and Its Historiography,” addresses ways in which rupture and difference have surfaced and have been criticized in social theory. In chapter 1, “Modernity, Colonialism, and the Postcolonial Critique,” Bhambra focuses on Ranajit’s Subaltern Studies and other postcolonial theory, suggesting that subaltern studies reify differences between the West and the “rest,” by privileging narratives of the marginalized. “Any claim for unity among the oppressed,” Bhambra notes, “is perceived as potentially an essentialist position.” (Bhambra, 2009, p. 30).

At the end of Chapter 1, Bhambra introduces Subrahmanyam’s ‘connected histories,’ the full weight of which does not become apparent until the end of chapter 3. Using author Veena Das’ ‘subaltern as perspective,’ as an example of standpoint theory, Bhambra show how European modernity and subaltern studies privilege historical narratives from a singular standpoint and thus fail to understand interrelations and connections throughout history (Bhambra, 2009, pp. 27–28). According to Bhambra, scholars must get away from viewing history and social theory from individual standpoints. Bhambra, however, does not endorse a value free standpoint, such as objectivity. She agrees with postmodern and postcolonial cohorts, who challenged the notion of objectivity as a “view from nowhere,” but unlike her postmodern and postcolonial peers, she does not want to substitute the view from nowhere with a singular view, instead Bhambra emphasizes connections, hybridity.[†]

Chapter 2, “European Modernity and the Sociological Imagination,” reveals the centrality of rupture and difference to sociology. Bhambra addresses the history of sociology from proto sociologists, Auguste Comte and Karl Marx to the first sociologists Emile Durkheim and Max Weber and beyond. The central theme of sociology, Bhambra states, was to understand how social relations in the modern era were organized. This approach, she argues, assumed a rupture between the modern era and the more traditional past. For instance, Bhambra notes in the beginning of the book that the French and Industrial Revolutions are often seen as the twin pillars of the origins of modernity (Bhambra, 2009, p. 1). In part II she pays more attention to the actual events, in Chapter 2, Bhambra is more concerned with theories built about how people have discussed certain events.

In “Modernization to Multiple Modernities: Eurocentracism,” chapter 3, Bhambra levels her strongest criticism on scholars purporting a system called ‘multiple modernities.’ Up to this point, Bhambra’s work offered new insights into old problems, but in chapter 3, the force of her argument becomes even more apparent and her solution becomes more urgent. Scholars, such as Shumel Eisenstadt and Wolfgang, Schluster, who advocate multiple modernities believe that different nations go through their own process of modernization and need not follow Europe’s model (Bhambra, 2009, p. 65ff). Through various forms of cultural or technological synthesis and hybridity, non-European nations can be brought into the modern globalized world. Bhambra, however, is quick to interject that even though these scholars try to avert blatant Eurocentracism, they also enforce Eurocentracism by using Europe as an ideal type for modernity (Bhambra, 2009, p. 72).

In part II, Bhambra applies the ‘connected history’ approach to three historical events, that have often served as quintessential moments in the rise of European modernity – the “Renaissance, the French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution. In chapter four, she critiques the view of the “Renaissance as the birth of the modern and the birth of Europe,” (Bhambra, 2009, p. 103) by challenging well renowned historian Jacob Burckhardt’s work on the Renaissance (Bhambra, 2009, p. 87). Chapter 5, Bhumbra deconstructs the origins of the nation-state as it supposedly emerged in the French Revolution and in Chapter 6, Bhambra challenges the traditional historiographies of the Industrial Revolution, which places Europe at the center of modern industry and capitalism – not an easy task. Bhambra shows that Europe was not unique when going through these events. By challenging these tokens of European exceptionalism, Bhambra hopes that new historical perspectives, which do not privilege Europe, can lead to a more inclusive narrative of social theory.

Working with the Global History and Cultural Centre at Warwick University in England, Bhambra is active in trying to connect sociology and history. Today, most, if not all, humanities and social science departments have turned their attention toward transnational and global matters. Bhambra work, not only achieves this end, but her knowledge of both sociology and history clearly shows that one discipline cannot continue in isolation from the other. Her breadth of knowledge of historiography, alone, is beyond impressive. For most historians, the Renaissance, the French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution are treated as distinct fields with their own canons of literature. Not only has Bhambra become familiar with these separate branches of history, but she has also included historiographies from around other geographical locations e.g. India. Her knowledge of historiography, coupled with her understanding of both classical and modern sociology, makes Rethinking Modernity a canonical text for today and tomorrow’s sociologists and historians.

–Todd Burst


Bhambra, G. K. (2009). Rethinking modernity: postcolonialism and the sociological imagination. Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ferguson, Niall (2012). Civilization: The West and the Rest. Reprint edition. New York:      Penguin Books, 2012.

Nagel, Thomas (1989). The View From Nowhere. Reprint edition. New York: Oxford          University Press, USA

[*] The phrase ‘West and the ‘rest’” refers to historian Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest (2012).

[†] The phrase “view from nowhere,” refers to philosopher Thomas Nagel’s book The View from Nowhere (1989), where the author refers to the supposedly neutral standpoint of objectivity as “the view form nowhere.”

For more information:

Shadows of Tender Fury, interview with Bhambra by Alf Gunvald Nilsen

Susan Buck-Morss: “Hegel and Haiti”


In 2000, historian Susan Buck-Morss published “Hegel and Haiti,” where she sought to transcend disciplinary, temporal and spacial boundaries by reading Hegel’s master/ slave dialectic in a transnational context.[1] Buck-Morss claims that Hegel began thinking about the relations between masters and slaves as a result of the Haitian Revolution, but philosophy scholars have not considered his work outside abstract ideas. The reason for this is, she claims, results from the specialization of knowledge and lack of communication between disciplines. Because of this disciplinary shortsightedness historians and others have allowed the Enlightenment ideal of Universal history to continue. Universal history is a teleological theory that humanity is set on a common course to universal freedom, but with growth of cultural history, Atlantic history, etc. we can see that Universal history is nothing more than a Eurocentric grandnarrative—black slaves, for instance, were excluded from this history.

Although this is a review of her 2000 article, it is worth mentioning Buck-Morss’ book Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (2009).[2] “Hegel and Haiti” serves as the heart of her book—verbatim—but she adds and introduction providing indispensible background and a second essay, where she responds to her critiques and espouses a form of new humanism. Her main argument is that history needs to be more inclusive of the narratives previously left out. This position reflects those help by Paul Gilroy, W.E.B. Dubois, and Jean Francois Lyotard. In fact, her work is very much inspired by postmodernism, but it is just as poignant today as it was in sixteen years ago.

Buck-Morss asserts that Enlightenment thinkers used slavery as a metaphor “connoting everything that was evil about power relationships.”[3] Freedom, for these writers, stood-out as “the highest and universal political value.” Ironically, narratives of Universal history, common to Enlightenment thinkers, grew at the same time that chattel slavery expanded in the Americas. This contradiction lies at the center of Europe’s global ascendancy and the rise of modern liberal capitalism.[4] “The exploitation of millions of colonial slave laborers was accepted as part of the given world by the very thinkers who proclaimed freedom to be man’s natural state and inalienable right.”[5]   How could contemporaries not see the incongruity between the rhetoric of freedom and the practice of slavery? Even more important, for Buck-Morss, why have scholars today overlooked this obvious contradiction? How can modern writers, fully cognizant of the facts, [construct] Western histories as coherent narratives of human freedom”?[6] The answer, Buck-Morss argues, can be found in the relationships between disciplines–or rather lack of relationships. For instance, Hegel is considered part of perennial philosophy, but studied only as a philosopher engaged in abstract thought; history appears to have no influence on the man who wrote about the influences of history! “The greater the specialization of knowledge… the easier it is to ignore discordant facts.”[7]

A bit of background: Enlightenment and Enlightenment-inspired philosophers from Locke to Hegel venerated freedom. According to Buck-Morss, philosophers often used slavery as a metaphor for “everything that was evil in power relationships.”[8] They were aware of the horrors of slavery, but American chattel slavery was strangely left out of the philosophies—even though they believed their philosophies to be universal i.e. applicable to all people (men, actually). Enlightenment philosophers espoused their idea of universal freedom, the slave trade expanded exponentially. The philosophy of freedom and capitalism emerged in this context. “The exploitation of millions of colonial slave laborers was accepted as part of the given world by the very thinkers, who proclaimed freedom to be man’s natural state and inalienable right.”

A bit of philosophy: Universal history is the belief, common to Enlightenment thinkers, that history is teleological. For instance, Kant believed that human history moved toward political liberty, while Hegel believed that human history moved along stages, these stages terminated in spiritual liberty. “History is the process whereby the spirit discovers itself and its own concept.”[9] The master/ slave dialectic is how Hegel explains the movement of history. The master and slave, according to Hegel, share a symbiotic relationship. The master cannot live without the slave or the slave without the master. But the slave is the one who makes material changes in the world and soon the master finds that he is more dependent on the slave than the slave is on him. The slave has more agency in the world and creates history. According to Buck-Morss “the slaves achieve self-consciousness by demonstrating that they are not things, not objects, but subjects who transform material nature.”  Liberation, according to Hegel, does not come from above, it comes from the slaves who risk their lives for freedom “And it is solely by risking life that freedom is obtained.” Buck-Morss adds, “the goal of this liberation out of slavery cannot be subjugation of the master in turn, but, rather, elimination of the institution of slavery altogether.”[10] Whether Hegel used “master” and “slave” metaphorically is irrelevant, because as she states in the beginning of her essay, “by the eighteenth century, slavery had become the root metaphor of Western political philosophy, connoting everything that was evil about power relationships.” Given that Hegel produced his work around the same time as the Haitian Revolution, she wonders why scholars have not connected his writing and the events.

By reading Hegel’s master-slave dialectic in relation to Haiti, she shows that his idea was not born in an abstract vacuum, but instead came from a man who was engaged with the world (at least through the newspapers). In this way, Hegel’s philosophy was universal (until he fell silent about it).  For Buck-Morss Universal history should be discarded and replaced with universal history—history that includes the contradictions of European Enlightenment philosophy and the narratives of “those without history.”

–Todd Burst

[1] Buck-Morss, Susan. “Hegel and Haiti.” Critical Inquiry. 2000, 821–65.

[2] Buck-Morss, Susan, Susan Buck-Morss, and Susan Buck-Morss. Hegel, Haiti and Universal History. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009.

[3] Ibid., 821

[4] Ibid., 822-3

[5] Ibid., 822

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Buck-Morss, Susan. “Hegel and Haiti.” Critical Inquiry., 2000, 821–65, 821.

[9] Haym, Rudolf. Hegel und seine Zeit: Vorlesungen über Entstehung und Entwickelung, Wesen und Werth der Hegel’schen Philosophie. Gaertner, 1857, 62.

[10] Buck-Morss, Susan. “Hegel and Haiti.” Critical Inquiry., 2000, 821–65, 849.




Review: “Slavery’s Scientific Management: Masters and Managers” by Caitlin Rosenthal Caitlin Rosenthal. 2016.

Caitlin Rosenthal. 2016. “Chapter 2. Slavery’s Scientific Management : Masters and Managers”

One of the main themes for historians of slavery’s capitalism is showing how American slavery was part of modern capitalist economy.  Traditionally, scholars associate slavery with pre-modern economic institutions, such as feudalism and the likes.  In America (U.S.) during the nineteenth century, the slave economy of the South was portrayed as the antithesis of Northern industry.  Scholars, such as Caitlin Rosenthal, in “Slavery’s Scientific Management: Masters and Managers,” are showing how slavery contributed to modern business practices.  Rosenthal’s Slavery’s Scientific Management” explores this theme by focusing on how slave owners kept meticulous records of slave productivity in hopes of maximizing output–a quintessential of tenant scientific management, most often associated with industry and manufacturing rather than slavery.

Assistant Professor at University of California, Berkeley, Rosenthal’s work on the connection between slavery and scientific management has been much anticipated and she is currently expanding and presenting her research in her forthcoming book:  From Slavery to Scientific Management: Accounting for Control in Antebellum America.  In an interview in the Harvard Business Review (2013), Rosenthal summed up her research by stating that “plantations took a more scientific approach to management than the factories did.”  “Slavery’s Scientific Management: Masters and Managers” appears in Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development (2016).

Rosenthal follows the accounts of Eli J. Capell from Amite County in Mississippi c.1842.  Capell took notes on how many pounds of cotton his slaves picked per day.  Monday, October 10, 1842, marked an extraordinary day for slaves’ output of cotton and Capell would use this day as a baseline for measuring future outputs.  Capell and other “book farmers” used these records to evaluate experiments and incentives to increase production.  “Slavery became a laboratory for the use of accounting because neat columns of numbers more closely matched the reality of life on plantations than in many other early American enterprises.”  She goes on to state, “the commodification and capitalization of lives made it easier to put numbers to work.  Innovation was a byproduct of bondage.” It was much easier for a slave owner, who kept records, to draw correlations between the input and output of slave labor because slaves’ productivity was measured by the amount of cotton picked per day.  In manufacturing jobs, other variables (state of machinery, etc.) might hinder management from deducing accurate correlations between input and output.

Historian Alfred Chandler noted that overseers were the first “salaried manager[s] in the country, but he also argued that slavery was a premodern economic institution, more akin to feudalism than progressive industry and therefore fall outside the realm of management studies.  Bill Cooke, however, responds by calling this the “denial’ of slavery in management studies.”

Slave accounting methods created a demand for instruction booklets.  For instance, in 1850, Thomas Affleck published Plantation Record and Account Book.   Affleck held a background in financing, scientific agriculture, and publishing.” He boasted about his use of accounting to increase productivity.  These account books used  the principles of median returns and the idea of the “prime hand.”  “Hands,” referred to the slaves and the prime hand referred to the “maximum that could be expected from a single individual.” Overseers and plantation owners shared their accounts with others in hopes of finding universal ways of increasing production.  They used methods such as “prime hands” and shared methods of incentives and punishment, which they though were effective ways of increasing output.

According to Rosenthal, Southern plantation accounting methods excelled beyond that of Northern manufacturers.  The control of masters over slaves allowed them to forcefully impose quotas via simple accounting methods.  “The soft power of quantification complemented the driving force of the whip.” In other words slave owners excelled at “management controls” which would become a quintessential factor in management theories and policies for later manufacturing jobs.

Unlike traditional narratives that portrayed slavery as a premodern institutional antithetical to capitalism, she shows that, slave accounting methods lead to business innovations that helped create American capitalism.  Under slavery, the power of the managerial class excelled with the use of accounting methods, which would be adopted by Northern businesses and would eventually be referred to as scientific management.

The influence of business history and accounting in slavery has largely been overlooked.  Rosenthal has opened the door to further exploring the contributions of slavery to the rise of capitalism.  This review only covers the basics of her essay, but her contributions to the study of slavery’s capitalism help to expand our understanding of the interconnections between Northern industry and Southern slavery.  The two economies were not mutually exclusive.

–Todd Burst


Review of: “The Unfree Origins of American Capitalism” Seth Rockman


In “The Unfree Origins of American Capitalism,” historian Seth Rockman claims that “unfree labor plays a central role in the economic history of colonial British North America.”[1] His essays explores why this has been left out of the history of the development of American capitalism in the early Republic. Published in The Economy of Early America: Historical Perspectives & New Directions (2006), edited by Cathy Matson, Rockman’s essay is a precursor to current interest in the new history of capitalism and slavery’s capitalism.[2] He attempts to untangle the association between capitalism and freedom, which has become one of the hallmarks of America’s history and grand narrative. Instead, he argues, that coerced labor was central to America and that free-labor should not always be associated with freedom as the conditions were little better than slavery. “Capitalism in the early Republic is so strongly associated with democracy and freedom that its relationship to unfree labor stands unexplored, unmentioned, and ultimately unfathomed.”[3]

Rockman divides the article into three parts. In the first section, pp.335-340, he explains the grand narrative, which he seeks to undermine. Although scholars focus on the unfree labor in America prior to the Revolution, immediately following 1776 the subject disappears until the Civil War. This occurs, in part because freedom and capitalism, after the Revolution, are conflated. Freedom, during this era, refers to free-labor, meaning the “freedom for common men and women to work when and where they wanted.”[4] This period also saw a rise in “economic development” that economic historians associate with free-labor and individual initiative. Scholars often associated these two themes, arguing that personal freedom and capitalism are inherently inclusive. “Academic historians have enshrined this ‘master narrative’ over the past half-century.”[5] Given this mutual inclusivity, studies of coerced labor in the early Republic have fallen by the way-side. But why and how?

Section two covers the historiographical reasons why coerced labor was overlooked and capitalism and freedom (or free-labor) became inseparable. One of these reasons why the role of coerced labor in American development has been overlooked, he argues, is that scholars have not paid attention to social relations during this era. Traditionally, the development of American capitalism portrays it as arising from the common people. Although there were counter-narratives to this discourse, such as Charles Sellers’s The Market Revolution (1991), where Sellers argued “contrary to liberal mythology, democracy was born in tension with capitalism and not as its natural and legitimizing political expression,” histories equating capitalism and freedom found a resurgence in the 1990s and generally won out over the writing of scholars such as Sellers.[6]

The third part of his essay starts in the section titled “Slavery and Economic Growth,” where Rockman argues that during the economic surge after the Revolution, America saw an expansion in slavery. He shows how slavery and the cotton industry contributed to America’s international trade and structural development. But most importantly, slavery allowed the middle class to become ‘free’; to become masters, innovators, and capitalists.

When compared to slavery, wage labor appeared relatively more free than it actually was. Citing the works of W.E.B. Dubois, wage labor became associated with race and divided American workers. Although wage earners exploited and their ‘freedom’ severely restrained, when compared to slavery free-labor seem free. “Precisely because it was not slavery, wage labor moved from a badge of unrepublican dependence at the time of the American Revolution to the hallmark of liberal freedom during the Civil War.”[7] He states that wage labor only became possible because other Americans were enslaved and that “if the satisfaction of not being a slave was enough to smooth white workers’ entrance into wage relations, then slavery… becomes essential to the development of American capitalism.”[8]

Under capitalism, labor is both a commodity and capital. Capitalist seek to keep their cost low. In the early Republic, they did this by circumscribing the legal rights of U.S. citizens by hiring non-citizens. They also used women because of their diminutive legal status. In other words, they used race, gender, and class to their benefit and in so doing they reified these boundaries and partitions. In the section titled “Coercion and the Wage Economy,” Rockman explores these ideas vital to understanding social relations during the early Republic and revising the history of American capitalism.

Both historians and the general reading public, Rockman argues, have built a grand narrative of America’s past that conflates freedom and capitalism. This narrative is well-embedded in public memory and lies at the heart of the American ideology. “The triumph of liberal capitalism in the early United States depended on unfreedom.” For Rockman, it is important to understand this aspect of American history because it “places those freedoms in a far richer context and reminds us of their costs and consequences.”[9] His work in the history of capitalism and slavery’s capitalism have helped forge a path through in historiography that separate grand rhetoric and narratives from scholarly enquiry, thereby showing how vital history is to understanding today’s socio-economic and political environment.

–Todd Burst




[1] Rockman, Seth. “The Unfree Origins of American Capitalism.” The Economy of Early America: Historical Perspectives and New Directions, 2006, 335–61, 335.

[2] Slavery’s Capitalism (2016), is the title of a book Rockman and Sven Beckert co-edited, but I use the term slavery’s capitalism as shorthand for recent interest in the history of relationships between slavery and capitalism. For more information, please see: Beckert, Sven and Seth Rockman. 2016. Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development. University of Pennsylvania Press.

[3] Ibid., 336.

[4] Ibid., 336.

[5] Ibid., 337.

[6] Ibid., 341.

[7] Sellers, Charles. The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846. Oxford University Press, 1994, 350.

[8] Ibid., 350-351.


[9] Ibid., 361.

Mission Statement Update

I created Roads to Modernity and Spectres of Modernity blogs without a clear purpose for either. These blogs were bound together by a loose critique of modernity. I wanted a public space to voice my thoughts on history, which lied outside the purview of my Master’s Thesis. I felt there was more to say about modernity—even though literature about the failures and agendas of modernity are not left wanting. I knew I wanted to focus on history; on historiography; on political economic thought; slavery; stratification—liberalism, but without a direct focus, my blog devolved into re-blog-repost of popular history book reviews and academic conversations. Although I stayed true to my interest, the breadth of my interests was too broad and my skills were too unrefined to produce anything of consequence—I am rebooting.

I am refining the theme and focus of these two blogs by combining several recent trends in history to address modernity, liberalism, capitalism, and slavery in the long duree (late 18th century to the present). I will use Roads to Modernity as a site for reviews of books and articles pertaining to Atlantic history, Global history, the new history of capitalism, and Slavery’s Capitalism. In Spectres of Modernity, I will include my thoughts and opinions on modernity in the longd duree.

This change is somewhat inspired by David Armitage and Jo Guildi’s The History Manifesto (2014). The authors argue that we live in a moment of accelerating crisis characterized by the shortage of short-term thinking.”[1] This short-term thinking has extended to history, where authors are encouraged to write and publish micro-histories over long-term histories. My blogs seeks to aid in the tasks of studying the long duree—a term used by the Annales school of historians including Ferdinand Braudel. His work, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949) looks at the Mediterranean World through the long duree, meaning that Braudel wrote about the effects and changes of institutions over a long period of time. Armitage and Guildi want history to become more politically relevant to today’s world. I agree, though I do not necessarily think that history repeats itself—verbatim. Never the less, Spectres of Modernity will attempt to draw connections between historical events and modern political economic affairs. Slavery’s Capitalism serves as a starting point for my endeavor.[2]

Slavery’s Capitalism, in part, emerged from the new history of capitalism. Three years ago Jennifer Schuessler published an article in the New York Times—In History Departments, It’s Up With Capitalism”—where she introduced the public to the new history capitalism. One of the driving forces for the new history of capitalism “portrays capitalism not as a given (something that “came in the first ships,” as the historian Carl Degler once wrote) but as a system that developed over time, has been constantly evolving and penetrates all aspects of society.”[3] In other words, markets, under the new history, are de-naturalized. They are the subjects of human agency, often manipulated to favor a few over the many.

Three years ago Jennifer Schuessler published an article in the New York Times—In History Departments, It’s Up With Capitalism”—where she introduced the public to the new history capitalism. For Schuessler, the new history of capitalism abandoned “history for below” for a history of “bosses, bankers, and brokers who run the economy.”[4] Prestigious universities such as Harvard, Cornell University, and other institutions are offering classes, seminars, and programs on the history of American (U.S.) capitalism. In part inspired by the stock market debacle of 2008, Schuessler considered the new history of capitalism as a turn away from the history of “minorities and other marginalized people seizing their destiny” to capitalist and capitalism’s management, but her comments came before the development of these programs and the publications of works such as The Half Has Never Been Told (2014) by Edward Bapist. In fact Cornell’s “History of Capitalism Initiative,” as if commenting on Schuessler’s article, defines itself as “history from the bottom up—all the way to the top.”[5]

Historians currently writing about Slavery’s Capitalism, such as Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History (2015), and collection of essays in Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development (2016) edited by Beckert and Seth Rockman are revising a long held opinion that the peculiar institution of slavery was antithetical to the rise of American (U.S.) capitalism in the 19th century reveal that the institutions endemic to capitalism e.g. insurance, markets, contracts, management, etc. became part of the capitalist framework through slavery. Much of the writing dealing with the new history of capitalism and slavery’s capitalism are concerned with the nineteenth century. However, the relationship to slavery and capitalism and slavery and liberalism has a longer history than 19th century America. For instance historian William Pettigrew, in Freedom’s Debt, argues that the ideas of free trade–and freedom itself–resulted from the British African slave trade.  Private merchants fought the monopoly of the Royal African Company in the early eighteenth century achieved liberal legal reforms in relation to corporate monopolies.  The roots of free trade were founded in the African slave trade.

Other works, by writers such as Susan-Buck Morss and Gerald Horne have written histories highlighting the ironies between liberal democratic freedom and slavery—two institutions, which coexisted together, and both were foundational to the development of America.[6] The history of liberalism, like that of capitalism and democracy, was fraught with discrepancies between ideals and practices. These discrepancies lie at the center of my project.




















[1] Guldi, Jo, and David Armitage. The History Manifesto. 2014.

[2] I borrow the phrase, Slavery’s Capitalism, from the collection of essays edited by Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman under the same name: Beckert, Sven, and Seth Rockman. Slavery’s capitalism: a new history of American economic development. 2016.

[3] Foner, Eric. “A Brutal Process ‘the Half Has Never Been Told,’ by Edward E. Baptist.” New York Times, n.d.

[4] Schuessler, J. “In History Departments, It’s Up with Capitalism.” New York Times (2013).


[6] Liberal democracy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was not meant to extend to women, the poor, African Americans, Asian Americans, or any other “minority” group. The history of liberal democracy, in the public sphere, has manipulated the past to serve political rhetoric of the present. This issue is one of the main points I address in Spectres of Modernity.